I had dinner at the French Laundry last week – it had been a long time coming. I debated writing about it for a variety of reasons. I don’t want to brag or to review or to ooh and aah about it. And I don’t think I can add much that has not been already said. Because of these reasons, I did not take pictures of my dinner and constrained myself to only mental notes that allowed me to enjoy every second I had there.
I don’t pretend to know everything about Thomas Keller and the French Laundry but I know some stuff. I have devoured the cookbook and made nearly every recipe in it more than once. I hosted maddening New Year’s parties featuring 10 course French Laundry-recipes for the last three years. I went to book signings, talks, and the likes just to hear and meet Thomas Keller and have loved the Bouchon and AdHoc cookbooks just as much since they came out.
I was ready for the French Laundry experience because I understood that this is the golden standard – this is where the bar is set for the fine dining industry. Innovative yet classic and restrained in its cuisine, the Laundry marries farm-to-table with modern cooking seamlessly, wrapped in a magical setting, outfitted with the absolute highest quality service, and complete with a superb wine list that can rival the phonebook in size. This is it – the peak of it all where precise execution, unwavering consistency, mastery of each craft that makes the experience complete are the rule.
Making a reservation was far from easy, but we were spoiled- we had a friend help with the process (thank you Bobby!). One afternoon, my cell rang and I saw a Yountville number – my heart skipped a beat. It was Lawrence Nadeau, the maitre d’ who has reigned at the iconic Thomas Keller restaurant for over 15 years. We were in- four of us on the Tuesday July 3, two months away from that phone conversation.
The day came and I found myself taking a second in the car to breathe in the fact that this was happening. What woke me from my daze as we arrived was that we had no idea where the front door was. The place is unassuming to say the least – modest, pristine, understated in a classy fashion. We were on time and got seated immediately, in a somewhat dim-light semi-open room where two other small parties were dining.
The staff was pleasant – sharp, personable, professional- the highest quality service experience possible. These guys are not just well-trained, they are very well-practiced. Experience is what makes them different than any other high-end dining restaurant staff. The service here is more than a well-rehearsed play, it is like the second half of the season where each line is smooth and natural, each step can be taken blind-folded and no matter what curve-balls an odd patron may throw, chances are they have seen it and know exactly how to handle it. The icing on the service cake was a visit from a staff member, not responsible for our table, who heard we are from Colorado and wanted to say hello. Hello welcoming thoughtful attitude to you too!
The four of us divided and conquered the chef’s tasting menu in a way that allowed our table to get at least one of each of the dishes listed, with all the extra supplements and “serves two” dishes. It would be unfair to explain these dishes in a few words and you are probably not up for the short story I can unleash for each of them. The grand prix best dish: oysters and pearls. The best overall touch in almost every dish: the tenderest possible baby vegetables – turnips sweeter and smaller than I have ever seen, infant baby carrots more tender than my imagination could have created, petite onions so petite they make pearl onions seem like mammoths. The not-so-grand regret: foie gras ban began July 1 in California- we got there three days too late. The cherry on the cake to end our dinner: a passion fruit truffle that came as I was gushing over our experience and my dwindling glass of Tokaji.
The pink elephant in the room: it was a thousand dollars for two people, and that was with two bottles of wine we brought (and paid the corkage fee for). This is not how we roll for dinner on a regular basis. That bill, however, was not for the meal we had- it was much more than a meal. This dinner gave me the ability to process what the French Laundry is. There is no way to truly understand how the place that leads the fine dining industry works except to be there and see it, feel it, taste it, live it. It was precisely spectacular in every way I expected it to be and it forever improved my vision of standards for the food world.
Go if you have the smallest of inklings to do so. There is a way to make something like this happen and it is worth finding that way for this experience.